Indentured Labour: Camy Shanghai Dumpling House’s secret, part 2

Last time that I mentioned Camy Shanghai Dumpling House, I conjectured that the popularity was due to its open secret status and cheapness. At least now we know where the cheapness comes from: not paying their staff. From the Herald-Sun:

Mr Chang worked 13-hour days from 9.30am-10.30pm with only five-minute breaks, which had to be approved by the boss, for $100 a day.

He worked six days a week and his only holiday was Christmas Day, according to Federal Magistrate Grant Riethmuller. “It is clear that the patrons attended for the quality of the Shanghai dumpling-style cooking rather than the ambience of the premises,” Mr Riethmuller said.

Mr Chang feared if he lost his job his visa would be cancelled and he took action only after he had permanent Australian residency, the magistrate said.

The court found that Mr Chang had been underpaid from December 2004 to January 2008.

Mr Riethmuller ordered restaurant owners Min-Seng Zheng and Rui Zhi Fu to pay $172,677 in unpaid overtime and penalty rates, and $25,000 of superannuation. Their lawyer, Alex Lewenberg, said the owners planned to appeal.

I also praise Federal Magistrate Grant Riethmuller for his knowledge of the premises.

“It’s a minefield even for Asians”

I had dinner on Saturday at Poon’s Chinese Restaurant in Barkly Street, Footscray. It was the worst Cantonese meal that I’ve eaten in Melbourne. The service was gracious and friendly considering that they were packed and it was dirt cheap. The meal was a mistake but not an expensive one and it filled me with regret but not salmonella. The food was uniformly tasteless like some non-toxic, starchy glue.

Poon’s however, is popular enough to be ranked a local institution much of which seems to revolve around the ritual of regular dining in the same place over a period of decades. The result of a family decision where Friday night is fish and chips, Saturday night is Poon’s. Single sex groupings dining together, having the Boy’s Night Out with a table filled with Crownies; women on other tables sharing a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay and splitting Poon’s gigantic (and suspiciously Chiko Roll-like) spring rolls. There were no chopsticks on offer, anywhere.

At a guess, it has been doing the same food in the same place for half a century and the punters love it. Here’s a review from Menulog:

i have been a ‘patron’ of ‘Poons’ for at least 40 years, and would not go anywhere else. The food is fresh, nutritional and very easy to eat. The variations on the Menu are wonderful.

The staff and Management have ALWAYS been good to me and i feel part of their family after all these years, at being treated as part of their family.

i only wish they could deliver to Carlton to where i live, but at least i get a chance to mix with some of the ‘cream of the crop people in our Society when i visit them regularly.

Thank you for allowing me to tell you this wonderful news about ‘Poons’. ( i tell everyone i go there and love it and the staff too )

Who in Australia cares about “Asian food” in a world where Poon’s is rating as well as Flower Drum or Lau’s on user-generated review sites?

When it comes to food from Asia, most Australians are happy with average food. “Chinese food” means a regionless choice of meat stir fried in your choice of bland starchy sauce. Most Australians are content with the local Thai joint doing the traffic light curries (red, green, yellow) straight from the bucket of Mae Ploy. Vietnamese means pho alone. Japanese is aseasonal and what rich people eat (except for sushi, which is no longer associated with Japan). The rest of Asia is a vague unknown, summarised in the thinner chapters of cookbooks with the word Oriental in the title. Above all, the food must be “very easy to eat”. No bones, no heads, no need to even chew.

So Necia Wilden’s article in The Australian newspaper regarding her inability to find or discern premium Asian ingredients was no great surprise to me. Boneless and free from the shackles of mastication. I’m only bringing it up because of the interesting discussion it has spawned over at Progressive Dinner Party. Like Zoe, I read it in the physical newspaper. I paid good money for it in the hope that food journalism in The Australian (and coverage of food from Asia) would be better in 2009 under Lethlean and Wilden’s gaze. I haven’t bought an edition of The Australian since. If it’s been a bumper year for food writing in The Australian, apologies for not supporting it.

I’m not going to tackle the racism behind grouping food from Asia together into an undifferentiated and monolithic bloc, skipping between cuisines as if there was no need for specialist knowledge in any of them. Provincial food for The Australian, it seems, only comes from refined palates in Europe.

It’s the Chicken Tonight approach to food that also concerns me: if only I had the right stir-through sauce recommended to me as authentic, the curry would taste the same as at my hotel in Phuket. So how to come by this knowledge? Getting a recommendation from the person that owns the store is just not good enough, as Wilden puts it:

“How do I know this soy sauce is organic?” I ask the young woman in the Japanese grocery store near my home. “Because it says so on the label,” she says, pointing to the Japanese characters on the bottle’s posh paper wrapping. Ah, right.

The key, according to the article, is to get a chef to tell you what is good, preferably one with an Asian last name or a cookbook the size of a family sedan. Actually going out, buying a few things and then tasting them is not mentioned. You only learn to cook through your own experiences and your sense of taste is subtly different to everyone else and above all, should be trusted. If David Thompson recommends Megachef brand fish sauce but you enjoy $3 a bottle Tiparos, go with your own tastes. At most, experimenting with different brands will be less than $5 a hit.

Buying ingredients is no minefield as Tony Tan mentions in the article, at least in comparison to the minefields that I’ve seen built for Cambodians and by Cambodians. Ask the shopkeeper. Try different things. You won’t step on anything that will turn you, your children or your livestock into a fine pink mist. So who is this article meant to service? What is to gain from making cooking certain cuisines at home look more difficult and less satisfying?

Just to put on a particularly Bolshie hat, newspapers have so little to gain from pimping out fresh food – it is the Simon Johnson’s of the world that buy ads in the food sections of newspapers and not your local Vietnamese grocer. There is a need for newspapers to prop up a system that recommends branded goods over raw ingredients. If word got out that fresh ingredients make much more of a difference in cooking than processed ones, all hell would break loose. People would be smashing in the Lean Cuisine fridges in your local duopolist supermarket in a fit of rage.

Just to bring things back to the world of Poon’s rather than some parallel universe where people care about what they eat, The Australian’s food section is aimed squarely at the Poon’s market and not at me. It’s aimed at people who buy the best fish sauce as a display to others that they buy the best fish sauce rather than as a pungent condiment whose value is in its consumption. This is the food journalism for the people who have been eating the same Chinese food for decades and are unwilling or unable to try somewhere new without someone else validating and translating the experience for them.

Xiao Long Bao in the Gastrodesert: Little House, Bundoora

Xiao Long Bao, Little House, Bundoora

I think that it was Australian food writer John Lethlean who labelled the region north of Heidelberg in Melbourne as a gastrodesert. On the surface, it’s gastronomically grim up north; the oleaginous wasteland of charcoal chicken and Smorgy’s. People speak with fondness of shopping mall food courts and premixed bourbon and cola. If Stuff White People Like was written by an Australian white person on unemployment benefits, these are the Likes with which they would Stuff themselves.

Like any desert, the surface appearance is deceptive. There is a whole hidden ecosystem, not as rich as much of , but still prepossessing. Witness the above xiao long bao, the Shanghainese soup-filled dumpling that is currently enrapturing well to do Melbournites via the CBD restaurant Hutong. This was to be had in Bundoora, well north of the Heidelberg hinterlands at Little House Restaurant. I’d always thought that the idea of a hidden menu at suburban Chinese restaurants was a racist conceit. Sure, there is the occasional suburban menu where you need to read between the lines of poor translation but my experience is that restaurants put whatever they’re trying to sell at front and centre. The specials board in Mandarin tend to turn up on the menu elsewhere in English. The secrets involve organ meat.

This is not the case at Little House. Xiao long bao appear nowhere on the menu – I’d received a tip from a previously unknown source that these were some of the best dumplings in the state, a claim that I was only going to verify simply because it sounded too ludicrous to carry any truth. Anonymous tipsters paid big bucks in Hong Kong, so why not north of the gastro-divide?

Granted, it is not as good as Hutong’s version – Little House’s xiao long bao has slightly thicker pastry and is not formed with the same delicate hands – but it is a good third cheaper and it fits with the homely appeal of Little House. They are a dumpling that is well above average. Hutong is opposite Melbourne’s best known Cantonese restaurant, Flower Drum. Little House is next to a suburban tattooist run by a man named “Nugget“.

Little House, Bundoora, Melbourne

The rest of the menu is modest Shanghainese with a heavy dose of Szechuan – mapo tofu, lamb, chili aplenty. Malaysian is on the sign but barely referred to on the menu, maybe a remnant of a previous owner.

Location: Little House Restaurant, Dennison Mall, Bundoora, Vic

Four Seasons Claypot Rice

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Tasty lens flare

When there is a queue of twenty people out the front, take the hint. It is either very good or super cheap.

Most of the time, I have a plan to eat my way around but after knocking back a handful of dumpling meals, I was satisfied by Hong Kong. This opened up the chance to eat at random. This joint , just near Temple Street, was doing a roaring trade in something that involved a giant stack of claypots which was reason enough to eat there.

Across the road is a hole in the wall place selling boiled offal in curry sauce. Once a family had joined the queue for the claypot joint, an emissary was sent over to the offal house to pick up a styrene clamshell of chopped tripe to see them through the queuing. Standing in line is reason enough to eat and the claypot restaurateurs were happy to let patrons bring in their own offal entree. This is probably a great measure of a food obsessed nation: that the only appropriate behaviour when waiting to eat is to eat something else. And there is always something else to eat at hand.

Once crammed into a communal table, I ordered what the people next to me ate.

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Oyster omelette, deep fried until crispy with a sweet chilli sauce. This dish pops up all over Southeast Asia, but I’d never had it before in this crisp form.

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Burnt claypot chicken rice; advertised as “Four Seasons Claypot Rice” on the menu. Rice is cooked in the claypot over a relatively high heat, which steams the chicken and burns a rich toasty layer of rice onto the bottom of the pot.

The local tactic for eating this dish is to pour a slug of soy sauce into the dish and then sit and wait for five excruciating minutes. The only two valid reasons that I can muster for the wait is firstly, the pot is damn hot; and secondly, maybe the extra liquid and steam from the soy lifts and softens the rice that is burnt onto the bottom of the pot. Maybe soy sauce represents the missing fourth season. If any claypot junkies can enlighten me, I’d love to know.

Meandering through Sheung Wan

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Just to avoid the impression that I did nothing but eat in Hong Kong, I also spent a few lazy hours wandering the streets of Sheung Wan in a dumpling and pork induced stupor, planning which dumpling place I’d hit next and remembering dumplings past.

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Sheung Wan is where the edible dried miscellany vendors hawk their wares. If you can dry it, someone here sells it as food or medicine. If you need a whole Yunnanese ham, one hundred kilos of fish maw or a bag of assorted turtle plastrons, this is where you will find it. As far as I know, of these three ingredients only one ends up in a dumpling.

Every store has a rich odor of its own, a musty smell that permeates even the passing trams on Des Vouex Road. I find it homely but it is probably not the olfactory overload that most tourists are seeking. You can always head over to the Flower Market Street over in Kowloon.

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The surrounding alleyways are packed with small packing houses, distributors and vendors. Porters lug boxes in and out of trucks, and onto low-slung metal trolleys. A few streets specialise in abalone, bird’s nest and ginseng. Judging by the “No Photography” signs on the abalone vendors, I’d wager that a proportion of the abalone is smuggled.

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Pickled cabbage vessel, cracked and leaking lurid chili. Not everything stays intact.

Lin Heung, Hong Kong

Lin Heung interior

Lin Heung is proof that the advice from random strangers on the Internet is better than anything published elsewhere. A commenter whom I’ve never seen before mentioned this dim sum joint amongst a handful of the sort of hawker stalls that pique my interest, so I decided to hit it up. Just because I don’t know you does not mean that I don’t trust you.

On a Sunday, Lin Heung is dim sum as competitive sport. Half of the trolleys enter the crowded, windowless room and a mob of ravenous Hong Kongers descend upon it, dim sum chit in hand. There are no clear patterns as to what particular dumplings are most sought after: the crowd seems self reinforcing. Hubbub causes further hubbub. Seating is communal, insofar as there is nowhere else to sit.

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siu mai at Lin Heung, Hong Kong

Everything here surpasses their base ingredients. You can taste the chunks of roughly-cut roast pork in the siu mai.

Lin Heung

Their tofu skin is light and barely toothsome; steamed beef balls are as beefy as whichever cut and organs were ground into them. This is the first time that I’ve seen people compete for simple plates of steamed offal. There is none of the premium dumplings; no prawns in anything that I could see. Seafood is on the menu but not off the cart.

lin heung cha siu bao

The biggest commotion breaks out over their bao; steamed buns. The reason is obvious, the actual bun, normally a neutral and flavourless element is tasty. It tastes like a real bread not simply a indistinct white casing for pork or bean.

It is a very rare occasion that you can find a street vendor or restaurant that is elevating food and doing something greater than selecting the best components at their disposal then cooking them to order. As much as I enjoyed both Lung King Heen and Maxim’s this felt more like home.

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Anthony Bourdain gave it his thumbs up. I think that he was onto something.

Location: 162 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong

City Hall Maxim’s Palace, Hong Kong

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When people play the standards well, it is still exciting. To be sure, City Hall Maxim’s Palace isn’t the sophisticate jazz stylings of Lung King Heen but those culinary riffs wouldn’t exist without a benchmark. In Hong Kong dim sum, that ticking metronome is Maxim’s. They make the classics in plenteous quantity and they do it consistently well. Whatever your expectations are about Maxim’s dim sum, it is likely that they’ll be met.

After negotiating the queue, Maxim’s is like stepping into a Chinese wedding where you don’t know anyone. There’s a preponderance of movement, food, red and gold but the focus is getting you seated and a meal inside you at speed rather any nuptial function. The cheapish chairs and tables are somehow reminiscent of a suburban reception centre. It is a mixed crowd. Local families read newspapers while their children tend to their Pokemon, or whatever it is that children interact with on their Nintendos these days. Backpackers look bewildered.

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Steaming trolleys rotate through the cacophonous hall, waitresses yelling out the names of their contents. I speak yum cha. I don’t know the words for “Goodbye” or even “Thank you” in Cantonese but I can ask for a plate of fried squid. It isn’t the most functional or appropriate way to know a language but I never go squidless. I probably sound like the rudest person in the room, but also, the hungriest. The waitstaff are au fait with you poking around on their trolley and taking your time. You could nurse a few dumplings for the best part of a morning. It would be the most pointless of mornings, but you could do it.

Anyhow, on with the dumpling porn

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Har gau, two sizeable prawns lurk amongst the shredded bamboo shoot within. In the background is cheong fun but with chicken and shiitake instead of the usual prawn. Maybe Maxim’s does take the occasional liberty with dim sum standards.

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Sin Chet Kuen

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Siu Mai, plus corn and prawn ball that I picked out because it looked hilarious. Eating for one’s perverse sense of humour is probably not the best idea.

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The damage: around HK$400 for two.

Address: 2nd Floor, City Hall Low Block, Hong Kong
Phone number: 852 2521 1303